Notice & Comment

Is the Death of the Blue Slip and Senate Hold Now Inevitable?

Much of a senator’s influence comes from the power to say no. Part of this traditional influence are the blue-slip and hold processes. The blue-slip process has historically required each home-state senator to return a “blue slip” stating that the senator supports a judicial nominee before the Senate will consider a nominee. Likewise, a hold has historically allowed any individual senator to object to a nominee and prevent the Senate from voting on the nominee. However, the Senate has already eliminated the blue slips for circuit-court nominees and due to recent changes in its precedent, it is likely only a matter of time before the Senate completely eliminates the right of individual senators to object to nominees.

The Senate recently modified its precedents to only require two hours of debate after a successful vote to end a filibuster on a nominee. Lowering the time required to overcome a filibuster greatly limits the individual power of senators to slow nominations. Even though the Senate previously eliminated the requirement for 60 votes to end a filibuster of a nominee, the Senate still needed to devote 30 hours of debate before voting on the nominee. Although the Senate was willing to devote 30 hours to confirm “higher-level” nominees, the Senate did not have enough time to confirm all nominees. Thus, by promising to filibuster a nominee, any individual Senator could in effect prevent certain nominees from being confirmed.

For instance, Senator Shelby previously placed holds on all executive nominees so that President Obama would address two issues related to Alabama. Even members of the President’s party have used this authority. Senator Landrieu placed a hold on an Obama cabinet nominee so that the Obama Administration would allow oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Likewise, Senator Gardner placed a hold on Department of Justice nominees from the Trump Administration to prevent the Department of Justice from prosecuting legalized (under state law, but not federal law) marijuana.

What happened after the Senate eliminated the 60-vote threshold for nominees will likely provide a precedent for the future consideration of blue slips and holds. With the lower threshold, the majority party did not need the support of any minority-party senators. As the Senate was willing to devote 30 hours to overcome a filibuster on circuit-court nominees, the Senate eliminated the blue slip for circuit court nominees.

Similarly, it is likely only a matter of time before the Senate completely eliminates blue slips for district court nominees and holds in general. The lower time requirement means that the Senate no longer has a practical reason to honor the traditional right of individual senators to object to a nominee.

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